State of the Association: MISSION: engagement

A collaborative AOPA reaches out

May 1, 2010

The Earth had scarcely stopped shaking after Haiti was devastated by a 7.0-magnitude earthquake—centered 15 miles west-southwest of its capital, Port-au-Prince, on January 12—when general aviation pilots in the United States began asking how they could help.

Although Toussaint Louverture International Airport in Port-au-Prince was overwhelmed, GA soon began ferrying medical supplies, relief workers, and other aid directly to Haiti’s smaller airports, including Cap-Haïtien and Jacmel. “Without these airports, that assistance would have taken much longer to reach those in need,” said AOPA President Craig Fuller. “And here in the United States, general aviation aircraft were able to deliver much-needed equipment and personnel to staging areas for transport to Haiti.”

Thanks to pilots’ willingness to engage in relief efforts, GA aircraft and smaller community airports were able to contribute in vital ways. “The same versatility that many GA pilots take for granted in the United States became a real advantage in Haiti, and personal aircraft made a significant contribution to relief efforts,” Fuller said.

Mission: engagement

That engagement also symbolizes AOPA’s primary theme in 2010, which Fuller has termed “The year of engagement.”

The engagement theme actually began in 2009 when AOPA expanded its involvement with the Sun ’n Fun Fly-In, Women in Aviation, and EAA, and began partnering with the National Air Transportation Association to help fund AOPA’s General Aviation Serves America educational outreach. Even AOPA’s annual convention got a revised format and new name— AOPA Aviation Summit—to reflect its enhanced focus on the issues that really matter to pilots.

Your association engaged on Capitol Hill, as well, where it was instrumental in helping to form GA caucuses in both the House and Senate. “Craig Fuller and I heard from members of the House that there was a lack of understanding with new members about what GA does—what it is and what it is not,” recalled Lorraine Howerton, AOPA vice president of legislative affairs. “Out of these discussions came the idea of a caucus. It is nicely surprising that so many members of the House of Representatives want to learn [about GA], or share their expertise,” she said, adding that nobody expected the caucus would grow to 114 members. (The Senate GA Caucus has 28 members.)

That engagement, and other collaborative efforts, proved invaluable in 2009 when the Obama administration telegraphed plans for $9.6 billion in user fees. Many were surprised when user fees did not appear in the administration’s 2011 budget proposal—or in the 2012 budget numbers. How could this be?

“It started with general aviation organizations banding together to speak with one voice on this issue,” Fuller said. “It was really quite remarkable. When AOPA opened the door and invited our fellow associations to join us in taking a more collaborative approach to resolving our industry’s greatest challenges, they didn’t just walk through that door, they flew through it, and they brought new ideas and enthusiasm to what could have been a protracted fight.”

Working together, AOPA and other GA organizations, members of Congress, and other stakeholders delivered a clear and consistent message that user fees are not the best way to fund our national aviation system (see “ General Aviation’s Watchdog in Congress”). “The budget proposal is proof that our message was heard loud and clear,” he said.

General aviation did make a commitment to collaborate on developing the best possible outcomes for everyone. “And now we must deliver on that commitment,” Fuller said. “There is hard work ahead for us all.” User fees could return in 2013, he notes; other top issues requiring attention are the protection of airports, ensuring that air traffic control modernization accounts for the needs of all system users, and building the pilot population.

A number of items in AOPA’s advocacy plan cross over from 2009 to 2010, noted Melissa Rudinger, senior vice president of government affairs. And 2010 is an election year, which introduces an additional layer of complexity.

“Airport preservation is still a key,” she said. “This year it will be a state-by-state battle because of different state revenue situations. In the area of ATC modernization, AOPA is collaborating with the FAA and RTCA to bring NextGen to fruition. Security continues to be a concern and staff continues to engage with the Transportation Security Administration; eAPIS is here and a revised Large Aircraft Security Plan expected. AOPA is working with industry partners and other key stakeholders to identify and transition to an unleaded avgas. “The environmental arena is much more collaborative than in the past,” Rudinger said.

Because the general aviation community votes, it’s important that GA—and GA airports—get the candidates’ attention. “So, in conjunction with our General Aviation Serves America campaign and our partners, we will be traveling to airports around the country and hosting events that highlight the value of these incredible community resources,” Fuller explained. Lawmakers and candidates at the local, state, and national levels will be encouraged to take part; events already have been held in locations as diverse as Stuttgart, Arkansas, and Mojave, California. “There’s no better way to attract the attention of politicians in an election year than to bring out the voters. And that’s something GA has proven it can do.”

External communications will support that effort, and focus on initiatives such as Let’s Go Flying and International Learn to Fly Day, set for May 15. “Growing the pilot population is an issue that all the aviation organizations can get behind. This is a perfect opportunity to build on the relationships we have been cultivating and work together to create solutions for the declining pilot population,” Fuller explained. “This effort will be different because it will take a holistic approach to identifying and resolving the issues.”

A special engagement-focused Web site offers many ways to get engaged in general aviation. One is to respond to GA-related stories in the media. AOPA will continue to do that, too, as well as acting in the case of crises like the Hudson River midair collision. “We took the right tack there, waiting until there was something valuable to say before we joined the conversation,” said Andrew Broom, vice president of communications. “We strongly encourage members to correct the media when they get the facts wrong, and praise them when they get it right.”

Member-focused communications also have emphasized engagement, as well as serving members where they are. “A great example is AOPA Live, which has evolved beyond Summit as a video channel,” said Tom Haines, senior vice president of media. A new version of the Web site, optimized for viewing on mobile devices, has been launched, and a new online airport directory and enhanced online flight planner are in the works. Months of effort culminated in April 2010, when a redesigned Flight Training magazine debuted. “Building on its strong content, the magazine has a new, more contemporary look that will appeal to a wider range of potential student pilots,” Haines noted. Meanwhile, AOPA Pilot continues its focus on pilots, telling inspiring stories that resonate with people inside and outside of aviation; each month, an article highlights one of the many ways in which general aviation serves America. And a new product, Aviation eBrief, was created to engage readers outside AOPA’s membership; the e-mail newsletter, published each weekday, already has a circulation of more than 200,000.

“AOPA launched a medical services program to encourage members to stay healthy and fly longer,” said Michelle Peterson, vice president of marketing. “This ties into our new wellness initiative, which also includes a monthly health column in AOPA Pilot and a new health pavilion at Summit.”

During 2009, AOPA purchased the portion of the AOPA Insurance Agency (AOPAIA) that it didn’t already own. “This gives us great flexibility to improve the member experience, and to add other insurance products of value to our members,” said Janet Bressler, president of the agency. The agency has transitioned from a department-based to a team-based structure, with calls now answered live during regular business hours—not by automated phone menus. “Customers are assigned to a service team, to establish a better customer service relationship.”

“We are adding the team names to all correspondence going out, so customers will know who to contact, but any staff member is able to assist,” added Brenda Jennings, AOPAIA vice president and director of operations. Each team chose its name from the phonetic alphabet.

The AOPA Legal Services Plan achieved a milestone in 2009, when the number of participants topped 100,000. Dedicated newsletters allow expanded engagement and enhanced communication with participants in all of these programs.

Throughout the member experience arena, AOPA is focusing on making transactions and communications with the organization easier, while educating members about key membership benefits. “We understand that people have less free time,” said Ed Thompson, vice president of member services. “We strive to keep things simple and deliver information that will add value to their experience as an AOPA member.”

The AOPA Foundation

The AOPA Foundation was publicly launched in 2008 to raise funds that will support AOPA’s efforts in four key areas: preserving airports, improving the image of GA, growing the pilot population, and safety education. Under the leadership of its new president, longtime AOPA executive Karen Gebhart, the foundation’s focus during 2010 is on building a world-class fundraising organization for the association’s long-term security, as well as to expand its reach (see “Member Perspective: Paying Forward”).

Much of its efforts have been focused on specific initiatives. For example, the foundation is funding an economic study that will clearly demonstrate the value of airports to their local communities. Last year it funded an important study of influencers that led to positive stories telling the value of GA—from the perspective of a three-generation tractor dealership in Winner, South Dakota, and a doctor who uses his aircraft to provide medical care on isolated Tangier Island, Virginia, among others. The Let’s Go Flying campaign joins AOPA’s traditional emphasis on mentoring to encourage people to learn to fly. And, of course, the AOPA Foundation funds the important safety and education work done by Bruce Landsberg and his team in the Air Safety Foundation.

“Our work has a significant educational component through our ability to tell the stories about pilots and the value of their airports,” Gebhart said. And there is no shortage of worthwhile stories to tell. Besides demonstrating the importance of airports to communities and the economy, there is an increasing shortage of new pilots. “With seventy percent of those who start flight training not completing a certificate,” she noted, “we need to work more closely with our industry to help identify and address the reasons behind this critical issue as well.”

AOPA Air Safety Foundation

While the AOPA Air Safety Foundation focuses on its mission of education, it also plays a role as a safety advocate with the FAA, NTSB, National Weather Service, National Air Traffic Controllers Association, and other organizations. “If we do our jobs right, a lot of regulatory initiatives never see the light of day,” said ASF President Bruce Landsberg.

ASF engaged more than 170,000 pilots who completed an ASF online course or attended a live safety seminar during 2009, an outreach 8 percent larger than 2008’s record levels.

“We have continued to produce award-winning educational content, with an average of 33,000 online course completions each month,” said Kathleen Vasconcelos, ASF’s director of operations.

ASF launched seven new online courses in 2009, and set a new record for course completions with more than 400,000. Participation in safety quizzes skyrocketed after their functionality was improved earlier in 2009, and nearly 400,000 completions were logged—nearly one-third more than in 2008. Another 46,000 pilots were engaged by two new live safety seminars, presented at some 200 locations. “Last year we introduced a new form of engagement, by offering webinars,” Vasconcelos said; at least eight are planned for this year. ASF plans 10 new online courses and will hold nearly 200 live seminars, she added.

Following the August 2009 midair collision in the Hudson River Corridor, ASF went to the New York City area and presented two safety seminars with simulcast webinars, partnering with local pilot associations, helicopter operators, and the FAA. ASF also conducted regional webinars on collision avoidance in Florida and Southern California. Database research helped AOPA discourage the FAA from issuing unwarranted airworthiness directives.

“We’re proud of the number of pilots we’ve reached—but that’s only about 30 percent,” Vasconcelos said. “There are still a lot more out there.”

E-mail the author at mike.collins@aopa.org.